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Friday, February 15, 2013

New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act

Dear friends,
Yesterday, the New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act was introduced in the New Jersey Senate by sponsors Senators Sandra B. Cunningham, Teresa M. Ruiz, Raymond J. Lesniak, Nellie Pou, Nia H. Gill, and Brian P. Stack. Its introduction in the Assembly, by Primary Sponsor Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, is pending. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s statement on this historic occasion appears below. Initial press coverage of this event, which has been quite favorable, can be accessed through these links:

Statement on New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act
New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
Amidst an uneven, uncertain economic recovery, finding work is job one for many still unemployed New Jerseyans. And yet many seeking work are being prevented from even competing for a job. The problem of finding and keeping a job is even more acute for those with a criminal history. For many, the largest barrier to work is the tiny box on the employment application, asking the applicant to check if he or she has ever been convicted of or even arrested for a crime. Frequently, a checked box ends the application process—and any opportunity to work.

The New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act, sponsored by Senator Sandra Bolden Cunningham and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, postpones (but does not eliminate) the box and the criminal background inquiry. This legislation promotes competition, where everyone wins: those with the “will and skill” to work have the opportunity to compete for jobs based on the whole record not merely a criminal record; employers retain the sole decision making authority to hire the best; and New Jersey may set a national business standard for excellence and fairness.

There are 65 million Americans with a criminal record, nearly one in four adults. Most of these citizens have never spent a day in prison, most have never been convicted of a violent crime, and many have merely been arrested without any conviction at all. Employment practices that prevent these potential workers from even competing or being considered for jobs affect New Jerseyans from every corner of the state and every walk of life— from promising young adults with a mere arrest record to respected mid-career professionals with a long-ago conviction for a minor nonviolent crime.

The problem is not unique to communities of color but it is certainly worse for people of color. A disproportionate percentage of those with criminal records are African American or Hispanic, as one in six Hispanic men and one in three black men will likely be incarcerated during their lifetime, compared with only one in seventeen white men. Securing employment greatly reduces the risk of recidivism among ex-offenders, many of whom were convicted of low-level, non-violent offenses and pose no greater risk for future criminality than those with equal qualifications and no criminal history.

One major study indicates that a large portion of our citizenry sidelined from the labor market impacts the national unemployment rate, community economic stability and racial inequality. Employment provides necessary financial support for individuals, their families, and the surrounding community; and legitimate employment has been shown to reduce recidivism. Understanding the link between work and rehabilitation, it is imperative that individuals with criminal histories who seek legitimate employment receive fair treatment.

The New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act levels the playing field for applicants with criminal histories, and opens the door for employers to identify more qualified applicants from which to choose. By moving questions about criminal records off of the application, the employer is able to judge a candidate by his or her qualifications and accomplishments, rather than by a criminal history check that will very often include outdated and incorrect information according to a recent estimate and industry professionals. Six of the sixteen largest employers in New Jersey have already postponed inquiries into criminal records until after the application, and the country’s largest public and private employers, the federal government and Wal-Mart, Inc., have long had such policies. These companies have moved in this direction based on their recognition that this is the most cost-effective and business efficient way to attract the best talent.

The New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act strengthens the productivity of our workforce. Lost productivity from those with criminal histories cost the United States economy nearly $60 billion in lost output in 2008 alone. Giving those with criminal histories a fair shot to compete for employment will reduce their reliance on the government to supply income and services, all the while making them more responsible and productive members of their community.

Similar laws have been in place across the country for the past 15 years because legislatures in 50 jurisdictions have recognized the common-sense need for a serious policy shift that provides meaningful opportunities for individuals to return to their communities and become productive citizens. After 15 years, not a single Ban the Box law has been weakened and several jurisdictions are considering strengthening their policies. With the input of business leaders over months and the leadership of the New Jersey General Assembly, this legislation aspires to be the most business-sensitive and community-responsive such law in the country.

Cornell William Brooks, Esq.
President and Chief Executive Officer 

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